ARCADIA, Ohio — Burning ethanol lit up the night sky for miles around the wreckage of a train that derailed in northeast Hancock County early Sunday, causing no injuries but evacuating nearby families indefinitely because of the risk of explosions.
Twenty-six cars of a 62-car Norfolk Southern train jumped the tracks at about 2:20 a.m. in Cass Township, and the contents of those that ruptured in the impact caught fire. The denatured ethanol in other tank cars that were not breached immediately was heated by the flames until it boiled and the tanks could no longer withstand the pressure, causing explosions that sent fireballs bursting spectacularly into the sky.
About 30 residences within two miles of the derailment scene were evacuated Sunday morning during the peak explosion risk. By midafternoon, authorities determined the risk to have diminished enough to reduce the evacuation to a one-mile radius, allowing all but eight of those families to return home.
The Red Cross was helping some of those shut out of their homes, and others were staying with relatives nearby, Washington Township Fire Chief Troy Stoner said. Hancock County Road 216 and Cass Township roads 247 and 243 remained closed in the area Sunday night.
Chief Stoner said it might take three days for the fires to burn themselves out. Local fire departments, he said, would play a support role behind contractors that Norfolk Southern sent to the scene to manage the blaze and clean up the derailment's aftermath.
Rudy Husband, Norfolk Southern spokesman, said the derailed cars were near the front of the train. Fire officials said the train's locomotives and first two cars were pulled safely away from the derailed cars after the accident.
"Obviously, the cause is under investigation," Mr. Husband said.
No passenger trains were affected, and Norfolk Southern rerouted freight trains that normally use the affected track to other lines.
The train was en route from Chicago to North Carolina when it derailed. Each of its cars carried about 33,000 gallons of denatured ethanol, a grain alcohol mixed with 5 percent gasoline for transportation.
Earlier in the day, Washington Township Fire Capt. Jim Breyman said firefighters initially feared the blaze could spread to the nearby Blanchard Valley Co-Op, 3725 Cass Township Road 247, where anhydrous ammonia, a chemical even more hazardous than ethanol, is used for making fertilizer.
But the fire captain said the blaze did not spread from the tracks, sparing two nearby homes and a farm. One semi caught fire and crews used water to douse it, he said.
One hundred firefighters from surrounding departments responded to the scene in Cass Township, just west of Arcadia. Loud explosions could be heard for hours after the initial call, authorities said.
Nancy Hollingsworth, 80, who lives about a quarter-mile north of the explosion site, recalled awaking to the sound of fire truck sirens. She went to the window to see what was going on.
"You could just see everything. It was so bright," she said of seeing flames in the night sky. Initially, she said she feared the area was under attack.
Derailed cars litter an open area near the intersection of Cass Township Roads 247 and 243 in Hancock County. The roads remained closed in the area Sunday night. The fire could burn for three days.
Within minutes, firefighters evacuated her from her home. She has lung cancer and other health conditions and could not leave on her own.
"It was pretty scary because you didn't know what was going on," she said Sunday morning from Arcadia United Methodist Church, one of two evacuation shelters to which area residents were taken.
Ethanol under normal conditions is not explosive, but like other liquids, it boils when sufficiently heated, and if it boils under pressure, a tank or other vessel containing it can explode. Chief Stoner added that while straight ethanol typically burns with a clear flame, the denaturing gasoline created the more spectacular flames visible for miles around after the accident.
Ethanol is one of many flammable or otherwise dangerous commodities commonly shipped by rail, but the movement of that particular commodity in trainload lots has soared during the past five years or so since the federal government banned the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether as a pollution-control additive in gasoline.
Because of its affinity for water, ethanol must be added to gasoline at local distribution terminals instead of at refineries, where MTBE was added during its use.
Main railroad lines across northern Ohio are part of the routes for ethanol trains operating between refineries in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and other midwestern states and distribution terminals along the Eastern Seaboard.
On Oct. 20, 2006, a broken rail caused 23 of 83 cars in a Norfolk Southern train to derail while crossing a bridge over the Beaver River in New Brighton, Pa., just west of Pittsburgh.
Resulting fires burned for about 48 hours, causing nearby homes to be evacuated, and ethanol spilled into the river, but no injuries occurred.
On June 19, 2009, a Canadian National ethanol train derailed on a flood-damaged bridge near Rockford, Ill., and burst into flames at a road crossing near the bridge.
One motorist was killed and several others were burned while trying to flee that conflagration.
Staff writer David Patch contributed to this report.
Contact Mike Sigov at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6074.